chapter  9
30 Pages

Labour intensity and manufacturing in West Africa, c.1450–c.2000


West Africa was historically short of labour, and remains short of manufacturing: hardly the place to look for ‘labour-intensive industrialization’. But a study of West Africa (or indeed of Sub-Saharan Africa generally) is significant for evaluating Kaoru Sugihara’s thesis of long-term ‘paths’ of economic development (e.g. Sugihara 2003, 2007), because it shows a path characterized by scarcity of capital as well as labour, and in which land-abundance was originally much qualified by environmental obstacles to intensive cultivation. In short, it fits into neither the ‘capital-intensive’ nor ‘labour-intensive’ paths.2 Precolonial economies in the region produced considerable volumes of goods manufactured precisely by labour-intensive methods; but this was made possible by seasonal constraints on land use. It will be argued here that the logic of West Africa’s resource endowment, from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries, was that industrialization was never likely to occur through a direct, ‘proto-industrial’ transition from handicrafts, but was always likely to involve an intermediate phase of specialization in land-extensive primary products. While the region remained short of labour, the most important contribution that governments could make to promote eventual industrialization was to invest (or facilitate household investment) in health and education, to raise the ratios of labour and skill to land. Starting in the decades of ‘legitimate commerce’ in the nineteenth century, during and after the decline of the Atlantic slave trade, accelerated under colonial (non-settler) regimes, the demographic and educational transition took a huge stride forward during the first half-century after Independence, c. 1960.3 Though West African economies have yet to catch up to the international competition in the cost and schooling of labour, early in the twenty-first century it has become possible to consider the possibilities for industrialization in West Africa – taking advantage of the enlarged and better-trained supply of labour – more seriously than during the early post-Independence pushes for capitalintensive import-substitution industrialization. Thus, in relation to the comparative history of industrialization, it becomes possible to think of an indirect route to labour-intensive industrialization from labour-scarce beginnings. The ‘paths of development’ approach also has something to teach economic historians of West Africa. For example, an inquiry into labour-intensive industry provides a framework for comparing and linking the histories of handicraft and

mechanized production in Africa. This chapter is indeed, as far as I am aware, the first study of manufacturing in Sub-Saharan Africa to treat ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ industry together. The following discussion is arranged in five sections. The first outlines the demographic and agrarian contexts until c.1960. The second examines the sources, dynamics and limitations of handicraft industries in the precolonial era. The third, which overlaps chronologically with its predecessor, considers the initiatives and fortunes of both handicraft and mechanized industries in the era of export agriculture, from the decline of the Atlantic slave trade to the eve of independence from colonial rule. The fourth section considers choice of technique in the period of import-substituting industrial policies, and comments on how far conditions now favoured labour-intensive industrialization. The final substantive section focuses on the continuities and similarities, or lack of them, between the ‘traditional’ and ‘newer’ forms of labour-intensive manufacturing.